Bill Shorten stands on a metal stairway in Australia’s biggest brewery and tries to convince the assembled workers that the coming election will not be an empty exercise. “Whatever you do, you get a politician at the end of it,” he concedes, drawing a few smiles from the crowd, but his speech is heavy with warnings about the importance of every ballot paper.
“How you vote has a direct effect on the laws and conditions you get at work,” he says. “There is a connection. If you think that everything’s going up in Australia but the wages, your vote can change that. If you want to see energy bills get under control, your vote can change that.”
Shorten worries in private about the apathy among voters who have seen six prime ministers over a dozen years. Here, in front of about 100 workers at the Lion brewery in western Sydney, he is trying to give meaning to the election to be fought on May 11 or May 18. He seems to feel his greatest challenge is to persuade Australians that it matters.
Shorten projects his voice over the conveyor belts and palletisers. He tells the workers he wants Australia to be a manufacturing nation. He knows their salaries and conditions are good but he says they may have family members in retail and hospitality where the penalty rates have been cut. He talks about Medicare, hospitals, schools, restoring penalty rates and lifting the minimum wage. He promises to force companies to hire more apprentices.
The applause is polite but not effusive. Everyone can see the television cameras. They know this is merely a warm-up for the election campaign. A few want to take a selfie with the candidate, but there is none of the manic energy of the 2007 campaign, when Kevin Rudd shocked his own side with his popularity.
The wariness in the audience is given voice when Shorten takes questions. One worker asks about negative gearing and gets an assurance that Labor’s tax increase will allow anyone with an existing rental property to keep claiming a concession. When the public questions are over, someone asks Shorten whether she can trust Labor to stop asylum seekers coming by boat. He assures her she can, but she is not convinced. An older man asks him to do more to help grandparents who have to take custody of their grandchildren but do not get as much support as foster parents. Shorten asks for the man’s details so his office can respond in more detail.
There is no doubt Shorten is match fit for the election. Five-and-a-half years after he became Opposition Leader, he is tantalisingly close to becoming prime minister. To stumble now would be to lose the unloseable election, a spectre so grim he will not rest until polling day.
“I’m hungry to start the work,” he tells The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald. Shorten has a long list of what he wants to achieve in government to deliver real progress in peoples’ lives.
“Fifteen years of education. That means genuine, universal access to preschool,” he says, reeling off the first item on the list as we travel from Sydney’s west to Sydney Airport.
“We’ve got to tackle the challenge of dementia and aged care, we’ve got to help people deal with it better. In the big health fights that people have in their life, we’ve got to make sure they don’t feel financial burden on top of the health challenge.
“I really want any kid from any postcode in Australia to get all the options – TAFE or university, whatever dream they want to pursue. I want merit and how hard you work to be the passport, not how rich your parents are.”
“We’ve really got to be one of the best countries in the world at so much,” he says. “Why shouldn’t we be the best at healthcare and education, why shouldn’t we be the best at climate change? We should be an energy superpower.
“We should have a more independent foreign policy. We should close the gap with the first Australians. It’s all about opportunity and fairness. I want every Australian to have opportunity and every Australian to receive fairness. And they’ll do the rest.”
Stone by stone, Shorten and his team have added so many promises they now have a mountain to climb if they win power. They vow to restore penalty rates, change the law to raise the minimum wage, hold a plebiscite on a republic, raise $32.1 billion over a decade from changes to negative gearing and raise $56 billion from changes to tax refunds on dividend imputation.
Not least, they promise to spend billions of dollars on energy projects while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, in a Parliament that has swung wildly on climate change over two decades.
Shorten will not admit he is promising too much. He plays down the risk of a traffic jam in Parliament for his crowded agenda.
“We’ll just keep advancing. You can get things done if you want to,” he says. As proof, he nominates the National Disability Insurance Scheme, an idea he backed in his earliest days on the Rudd frontbench.
Rudd, of course, took power in 2007 with a wish-list so long he had to launch dozens of reviews rather than taking immediate action. Shorten insists he can avoid that.
“You’ve got to go in with a clear agenda,” Shorten says. “And we’re outlining it. Love us or hate us or be somewhere in between, you can’t say we’re not working out the issues now. We haven’t been an opposition who’s coasted on the mistakes of the government.”
The government clings to the hope that voters do not like Shorten, given polling that shows more voters disapprove of his performance than approve of it. While voters do not crowd around him when he walks down the main street of Burwood in the electorate of Reid a short time after the brewery visit, there is no sign of hostility.
Shorten approaches workers and shoppers outside the Westfield on Burwood Road, striking up conversations and introducing them to the Labor candidate, Sam Crosby. One of the pedestrians, Hana Shahim, asks for a photo with him. “I’ve always voted Labor,” she says. Nobody offers a stronger endorsement.
The campaign will change this dynamic. The media pack will be bigger, the pressure on Shorten will be higher and the risk of encountering an unhappy voter will be greater. One other difference will be the presence of Chloe Shorten.
While Chloe has many other calls on her time, not least family in Melbourne, Labor is hoping to have her on the campaign as often as possible, in the belief that Australians warm to her and Shorten himself campaigns better with her.
Shorten’s friends believe he is a stronger campaigner than Prime Minister Scott Morrison and will emerge triumphant in a matter of weeks. With a solid Labor campaign, they say, he might achieve a swing of more than a dozen seats. Helped by a bad Coalition campaign, the swing might reach 20.
There are no such boasts from Shorten himself. He is careful not to look like he is taking the result for granted, even though he thinks the Coalition has become a tribe of warring clans that are incapable of running a government. His team assumes the government will rely more heavily on scare campaigns and negative advertising when the election is underway in earnest.
Shorten knows how a scare campaign works. He wounded Malcolm Turnbull at the last election with the false claim that the government was “privatising Medicare” and will revive the health funding message at the election to come.
He insists, however, that he wants to give Australians something to vote for, not just vote against. He takes this message to the Holmesglen campus in Melbourne, where he tells students he would put more money into TAFE and increase the cost of visas for skilled foreign workers.
The message about foreign workers causes unease in the crowd, given some of the students are from overseas and pay fees for their training in the hope of becoming permanent residents one day, but Shorten makes no apology for putting a priority on locals. His pledge to increase the number of apprenticeships is central to his policy platform.
As in Sydney one day earlier, Shorten uses his Melbourne visit to try to motivate his audience to vote for change. Again, apathy is the enemy. Whether he is talking about wages or healthcare, he ends his sentences with three words: “Your vote matters”.
The fact that Shorten visits Holmesglen with two Labor candidates, Jennifer Yang in the seat of Chisholm and Fiona McLeod in Higgins, is testament to his confidence. Winning Chisholm from the Liberals is a reasonable prospect but taking Higgins would be unthinkable at any other election.
Shorten believes he has been tested by his time as Opposition Leader and can be a better prime minister because of it. The contrast with Morrison and Turnbull, both elevated to the leadership from within government rather than winning an election first, is central to the way he sees himself.
It is also a big reason why he believes he is ready for the campaign and the work that would come after an election victory.
“I’ve learnt a lot,” he says. “In opposition there’ve been some terrible days and there’ve been some good days. The government’s run out of steam. That’s a charitable interpretation. I think the nation’s looking at us to see if we’re stable, they’re looking to us to give them three years of continuity in government, with no surprises.
No surprises? It is an impossible promise, but Shorten is nothing if not confident. And he says he is more than ready.
“I’ve been practising for this for five and a half years.”
David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.